As we enter the heart of the NHL schedule, these eight players need to step up for their teams down the stretch.
Let’s face it: Los Angeles’ stud defenseman hasn’t quite been the same this season. Whether it was an early-season injury or the fact that opponents are more focused on him, Doughty isn’t that Norris Trophy contender we all expected him to be. That said, the 21-year-old is fully capable of going on a hot streak similar to the one he had in late December. If he can display more offensive consistency down the stretch, L.A.’s playoff chances will increase. Marian Gaborik
Gaborik scored 42 goals with the Blueshirts last year, but that pace has slowed down considerably a year later. 10 of his 16 goals come from three big nights in which he scored a hat trick; which means he has eight goals in his other 35 games (very un-Gaborik like). If he catches fire and the team heals quickly, how close could they get to catching the Penguins for first-round home-ice? It’s not out of the question.
The Atlanta Thrashers were one of the league’s best stories through the first three months of the season. Why? Dustin Byfuglien. The forward-turned-defenseman was a Norris candidate around the holidays, but has gone cold (as has his team). For the young Thrashers to fend off the likes of Carolina and Buffalo, they need Big Buff to snap out of this 10-game funk – without defense partner Tobias Enstrom for the next handful of weeks, no less – where he’s failed to record a single point and boasts a minus-5 rating.
The once-dead Flames are winners of four straight, creeping back into the wild Western Conference playoff mix. Now it’s time for Miikka Kiprusoff to keep them there. ‘Kipper’ strung together three strong starts heading into the break, gathering some much-needed confidence. With more games off than he’s accustomed to as Calgary’s full-time starter, can the veteran netminder carry the Flames to an improbable playoff berth? He may need to.
Anaheim’s captain has missed the last month due to sinus fractures, but the team hasn’t missed a beat. Led by the great goaltending of Jonas Hiller, the Ducks find themselves in the thick of the playoff race. The re-insertion of Ryan Getzlaf into the lineup will definitely help matters. In his first 40 games, Getzlaf was producing just below his usual pace for points. That said, a dominant second half from Getzlaf will do wonders for the Ducks’ playoff hopes.
Acquired from the Islanders on New Year’s Day, Tampa Bay’s new goalie has already seen his fair share of ups and downs. Even though Dwayne Roloson has three shutouts to his credit with the Lightning, he has been pulled twice in 10 starts. The Bolts are banking on a 41-year-old goaltender to lead them not only to a playoff berth, but deep into the dance once they get there. ‘Roli’ did it five years ago in Edmonton; can he rekindle some of that magic?
Scoring 15 goals for the Predators is not a bad thing at the All-Star break. However, a lot of people who follow the team expected more production and/or consistency out of Hornqvist this season, who scored 30 a year ago. Nashville currently sits in fourth but needs to take advantage of a home-heavy schedule the rest of the way. It’d be a nice boost for Barry Trotz’s club if ‘Horny’ scored more often in these last two-plus months.
Alexander Edler is a huge loss for the Canucks; the Swede will likely miss the next one-to-two months due to back surgery. Who’s the best candidate to fill his shoes? Maybe Dan Hamhuis. The off-season signee has fit in nicely with the Canucks, carrying a plus-17 rating and 16 points to his credit. With Edler out, Hamhuis could see more time on the power play. It will enhance Vancouver’s chances at the top seed if he helps soften the blow of Edler’s injury.
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